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Duluth City Council reviews, takes public input on new police drone policy

Privacy concerns persist as police pledge to deploy new technology with discretion.

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A Duluth Police Department drone is displayed on a table at the Public Safety Building during an Oct. 26 meeting.
Tom Olsen / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — City councilors took a deep dive into a newly developed police drone policy Monday night, holding a public hearing to take comments on the rules that will govern local law enforcement's use of the aerial devices.

Councilors took no action, as approval was not required for the new police policy to go into effect.

While the policy calls for police to obtain a search warrant before deploying a drone, there are a number of exceptions that would allow officers to surveil an area without first obtaining such a document. These situations would include: emergencies that pose a risk of harm to a person, terrorist activity, responding to a disaster, rescue and recovery missions, to assess a potential threat, to investigate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in an area. Drones would not be used to monitor a protest, unless a warrant is obtained.

For instance, Duluth Police Chief Mike Ceynowa noted that while the department has had drones for years, they have not been used during any of the George Floyd or recent Roe v. Wade protests.

Ceynowa said the policy has gone through an extensive public review, with an October presentation to the Civilian Review Board and a November public meeting preceding Monday's public hearing before the City Council. As a result of that process and the suggestions made, he said some changes to the original document have made.

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"There has been some concern over privacy issues," he said. But Ceynowa also noted that with about a 20-minute maximum flight, drones would not be engaging in any sort of extensive community surveillance.

Man in police uniform
Police Chief Mike Ceynowa seen at the Duluth Police Department headquarters.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

He also said unmanned aerial police drones would never be allowed to be equipped with weaponry.

Betty Greene thanked Ceynowa for hearing out some of her concerns and incorporating some changes into the finished document.

"I would love to see more privacy protections built into the policy, as well as limitations on the use of facial recognition or biometric matching technology, since those technologies do not work as well with all populations," she said.

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Ceynowa said police department drones do not currently have facial recognition capabilities, and that type of technology would only be considered in the future if a warrant was issued and investigators were looking for a specific individual identified through actionable intelligence.

Sgt. Robert Hurst said drones have proven an invaluable tool for dealing with high-risk situations, such as the stand-off that occurred in Lincoln Park following the shooting death of police K-9 Luna in February 2021.

As the father of a Duluth police officer, Blair Powless said, "I'm really excited about the unmanned aerial systems, and the fact that they can help to protect police officers' lives."

By the same token, Powless said police must be held to account in their use of drones.

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"None of us want Big Brother peeping into our lives. So, being transparent about the use of this is really important," he said. "The other thing is this technology is constantly changing so quickly," Powless observed, encouraging the city to frequently review and revise the policy, as neededl, in the future.

Duluth police drones are not to be used to conduct random surveillance, and each flight must be documented. A monthly summary of drone use will be publicly posted and made available to the Civilian Review Board. As required by state law, Duluth police also will be required to file an annual report on drone use with the Minnesota Commissioner of Public Safety Office by Jan. 15.

Video recorded by drones must be deleted within seven days of capture, unless the data is deemed to be part of an active criminal investigation.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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